Observations of Flowering Plants and the Main Vernal Pools on the Mesa de Colorado, 9/6/01 - 11/17/01

Chronological Observations

Introduction to this page

Observations 2000 November 4 - 2001 February 23
Observations 2001 February 26 - 2001 March 16
Observations 2001 March 18 - 2001 April 14
Observations 2001 April 17 - 2001 May 10
Observations 2001 May 14 - 2001 June 29
Observations 2001 July 3 - 2001 August 29
2001 September 6
2001 September 12
2001 September 18
2001 September 26
2001 October 2
2001 October 8
2001 October 13
2001 October 20
2001 October 27
2001 November 3
2001 November 10
2001 November 17
Later Observations

2001 September 6 (Day 201): Vernal Pool, Los Santos (only a small section of the south end), and Granite Loop Trails; Waterline Road. Conditions again almost unbelievably cool, 74° at the Vernal Pool Trailhead at 3:50, with a cool breeze.

Change is in the air. This was my second recent hike where I had to put on a sweatshirt near the end of the hike. And the plants are showing multiple signs of the end of this year's show.

Today found only three species that are coming into full show, the lowest number since the very beginning of the bloom in early February. Almost as many species are ending their show as are in full show. Most poison oak and squawbush plants have dropped over 90% of their leaves. The berries on the red berry are gone, and those on the hollyleaf redberry are fading away. Even the San Diego Tarweed is almost completely finished in some patches.

The story of the red berries of redberry is interesting. The berries were red for two months (from 6/12 through 8/12). Yet in just five days or less, they all suddenly vanished, except for a few hiding underneath a leaf. Why all of a sudden did birds decide to snap up every last one? Jane Strong suggests that perhaps baby birds left the nest and went for easy picking. Alternatively, perhaps some species came into the area that loves the berries and has been flying around the area picking the bushes clean. If anyone knows the answer, please enlighten me!

Some laggard tarantulas are still looking for mates. I saw two today. A lady asked me if I had ever seen hundreds of tarantulas marching down the trail. The most I've seen in one hike this year is seven. But last year, my wife recalls seeing quite a few along the Vista Grande Trail.

The number of tarantulas one sees in August seems to be a simple function of the local abundance of tarantulas. The numbers of at least some animal species are down significantly this year (snakes are one example), due to the low rainfall of the past few years, and tarantulas may be following the same course.

2001 September 12 (Day 207): Vernal Pool, Los Santos (only a small section of the south end), and Wiashal (Multiuse) Trails. Conditions still fairly cool, 80° at the Vernal Pool Trailhead at 2:30, with a cool breeze.

The Italian ryegrass ring around the small pools looks browner and less prominent today. The sticky tarweed is ending its bloom, San Diego tarweed is nearly completely finished, and for the second trip in a row, no new species have come into bloom.

I saw no tarantulas today, but did see one tarantula hawk.

I thought I saw a last bloom on a bird's beak, but it turned out to be a tiny wasp nest, with a set of cells ~4 rows high and ~8 columns wide in a space of about 1 cm wide. Such tiny cells, each only ~1 mm in diameter!

For some time, there have been a few motorcycle tracks on the Wiashal Trail near the peak, but this time there were tracks all the way to the La Cresta Trailhead. Surprisingly, I met two motorcyclists as I was returning from the peak. They were quite considerate and pleasant to talk to, even though I of course had to tell them they weren't allowed on this trail. Would that all disagreements between people could be conducted so civilly!

2001 September 18 (Day 213): Vernal Pool, Los Santos (only a small section of the south end), Punta Mesa and S. Trans Preserve Trails; Monument Hill Road. Conditions still fairly cool, 81° at the Vernal Pool Trailhead at 2:10, with a cool breeze.

I had the pleasure of hiking with Zach Principe, the Reserve Biologist and Assistant Resources Manager, who did a weed survey as we hiked and botanized together.

The tarantulas were out in force today. We saw a total of 13, with almost half of them seen within a half hour before and after sunset. We even saw one that had lost some of its urticating hairs on its abdomen. Zach said that about 10% of the tarantulas caught in bucket traps have lost some of those hairs.

I asked Zach about my observations that the elderberries have mostly lost their leaves and berries in the last month or two, and he said that was unusual. Something is stressing them this year.

An inmate crew was removing the pecan trees ringing the field immediately north of the Adobes. These non-native trees had been a problem since young pecan trees were popping up all over near the Adobes. Badly-needed fire extinguishers were also in the process of being installed there.

Zach said the Engelmann oak acorn crop was average this year, an improvement from the last several years. He was hoping that this year's crop would survive. No Engelmann seedlings have survived since the early 1990s, with the seedlings produced in the mid-1990s succumbing to the low rainfall recent years. This is probably not unusual for a tree that lives hundreds of years to have successful reproduction only once a decade.

The California sagebrush has had buds on it for months, but now it looks like all the buds have been abandoned. Most of the plants look dry, and the buds look lifeless. Zach still held out hope that they might eventually open, so no firm conclusions can be drawn for another month or two.

Ranger Kevin Smith had cleared the Punta Mesa Trail in the past month by driving his tractor over the trail, and the trail is now in good shape, without the overhanging branches I found a month ago on it.

After seeing coastal goldenbush at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve last week, I had asked Zach if he had ever seen it at the SRP. He hadn't, and I suspected that it was because the record of it was at low elevation (830'), much lower than the lowest elevation on any trail. You can imagine both of our surprise when we came across a single specimen on the trail, in the middle of the road, just above the low point crossing De Luz Creek. The plant was in excellent health, and was just beginning to bloom. Somehow it had completely escaped injury when Kevin drove his tractor over it. There was nary another plant in sight anyplace along the trail.

This observation at ~1650' would be the second highest elevation recorded in the Calflora database for this species.

2001 September 26 (Day 221): Vernal Pool, Los Santos (only a small section of the south end), Granite Loop and Vista Grande Trails (only a small portion to the Cole Creek Bridge). Conditions back to hot, 91° at 3:40 pm, with a warm breeze.

The bloom has declined a lot in the past eight days. We are now down to about one-eighth of the peak showiness. The poison oak has dropped all of its red leaves, redberries are gone and the holly-leaf redberry berries have matured and lost their red color. Even the alkali mallow at the pool is now declining in bloom, and the everlastings have lost the showiness from their "dried blooms".

If the current rate of decline continues, the show will be essentially completely over in a few weeks.

2001 October 2 (Day 227): Vernal Pool, Los Santos (only a small section of the south end) and Granite Loop Trails; Waterline Road (only a small portion to the Cole Creek Bridge). Conditions hot, 87° at 3:30 pm, with a warm breeze.

For the first time this year, no species of plant is in its beginning stage of showiness, although soon the fat buds of pine goldenbush, the last remaining species to bloom this year, will open. The overall decline of the bloom continues, with even most of the berries of the wild honeysuckle drying up and turning black, and some of the rust-color dried blooms on the California buckwheat falling off.

I nearly stepped on a juvenile San Diego Gopher Snake on the Vernal Pool Trail. It froze on the trail, hoping I wouldn't see it, which was nearly its mistake! I didn't see it at all until after I had passed it, and apparently just missed stepping on it. Zach pointed those facts out to me immediately afterward. It was the first snake I had encountered for many hikes. I did see the single tarantula on Waterline Road later.

Several oaks seemed to be in trouble. A large Engelmann oak just north of the Vernal Pool Trailhead suddenly has a lot of brown leaves. Zach said this was quite abnormal, that the Engelmanns were several months away from the normal time they lose their leaves. Several scrub oaks also had most of their leaves brown on the Granite Loop Trail.

The annoying gnats were the worst they have been this year, making it almost impossible to stop on the Granite Loop Trail. (The breeze kept them completely away on the Vernal Pool Trail.) Everyplace seems to have these gnats now, which are worst near sunset - Fallbrook, the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, and even Monterey Park in the L.A. Basin. We need some cold weather to knock them out.

2001 October 8 (Day 233): Granite Loop (only a small section of the north end), Vernal Pool, and S. Los Santos Trails; Ranch Road. Conditions very pleasant, 71° at 2:24 pm, with a cool breeze, becoming cool enough to put on a sweatshirt partway through the hike.

After months of summer heat, it is now delightful weather for hiking. Without the heat and without a relentless sun beating down, and with the bugs absent for at least today, nothing detracted from the beauty of the grasslands. I stopped several times just to admire how beautiful they were, to soak in the quiet, and simply to enjoy the experience. I had almost forgotten how pleasant hiking could be!

As I descended the Los Santos Trail toward the Hidden Valley spur connection road, the rustle of the wind in the sycamores sounded just like water running in the streambed. I drank in the sight and the sound for some time, hardly believing that there was no water in the stream.

Perhaps the pleasant weather accounted for the large number of animals I met today.

I was startled from my reverie within a few steps when I saw what appeared at first glance to be a snake on the trail. I quickly realized it was a lizard that had its hind legs pressed to its body so that they were invisible without close examination. The lizard was easily identified later from the website of Robert Fisher and Ted Case as a Southern Alligator Lizard. The lizard was perhaps transfixed in its own reverie; it seem glued to the trail and didn't move as I photographed it from a fairly close distance on both sides of it. More likely, the lizard was in the process of molting, accounting for both the position of its back legs and its refusal to move from the sunny trail.

Within moments later, I met a small gopher snake on the road. I was able to photograph this snake, whereas another gopher snake quickly zipped away before I could even get my camera out of my backpack last week.

Approaching the adobes from Hidden Valley Road, I was surprised at the view of the adobes. One can clearly see the palm trees now that the pecan trees have been cut down. A small amount of pea gravel has been spread on Ranch Road immediately next to the Adobes.

As I rested in the shaded porch at the adobes, I noticed two squirrels scampering amidst the chopped up pecan wood. I've seen plenty of squirrels around the Visitor Center, but don't recall seeing any in this area before. Just west of the porta-potty, I finally saw one of the woodpeckers I have frequently heard knocking on wood. Its red head was a pretty sight.

Tarantulas are still out. I had no idea that the tarantula season lasted so long (2.5 months so far). I saw four tarantulas today, and got to observe a male tarantula tap-tap-tapping at another tarantula's home, asking if a female wanted to come out and "play". Here's the story:

I came across the tarantula in the middle of the bottom section of the Vernal Pool Trail, and something about his behavior made me come to a dead stop to observe him. Instead of the usual perambulation, this spider was stopped and I soon noticed him tapping his front legs on the ground. He slowly approached the hole of another tarantula, stopping every so often to tap again. He finally got to the rim of the hole, and his whole body went into twitchy high alert.

I could feel the tension as the tarantula warily tapped at the hole, and slowly, slowly, crept partially into the opening. Perhaps partly to alleviate his nervous energy, the spider gradually moved 90° to his right as he front legs probed deeper into the hole. It took several minutes for the spider to complete this navigation around and partially into the hole.

And then suddenly the tarantula withdrew with his abdomen high in the air, in the "high alert" defensive posture, with the end of his abdomen pointed back to the hole. The spider must have been concentrating on what might be happening behind him, so that when he encountered a simple blade of dried grass, he was startled and leaped into the air.

I was quite disappointed that no receptive female tarantula was home...

Later I realized how easy human males have it. Despite nervousness over asking a female for a date, the risks of rejection are much smaller than being eaten after having your date declined!

Earlier in the day I had seen what appeared to be a dying tarantula. Its legs were all scrunched up, and it moved like a very old man, very slowly and wobbly. The three others I saw were all in full health.

I finally got to see wand chicory in full bloom while I hiked, probably thanks to the cooler weather. Even though I have seen hundreds of plants that were in full bloom during the last 1.5 months, I saw many times the blooms today than I had seen in all the previous hikes.

On the Granite Loop Trail, I saw another mysterious track that I have not been able to identify in any book. The track consists of a V-shaped groove, about 1/4" deep, with no foot tracks alongside it. The track meanders around, sometimes making 170° turns and sometimes crossing over itself. If anyone has any idea what makes this track, please let me know!

On every hike for the last several months, I have also seen 20-50 side-blotched lizards, and today was no exception. Crows and hawks also were present, as they usually are. Even humans were out much more than normal today - I met three separate groups of people, compared to a normal number of zero to one in the past 3-4 months.

Two lizard species, a snake, four tarantulas, a woodpecker, squirrels, crows, hawks, people and an unknown small creature - lots of animals to make up for the declining plants in bloom!

2001 October 13 (Day 238): Granite Loop, Vernal Pool, S. Los Santos and Trans Preserve (only a small section of the south end for the latter two) Trails; Waterline Road (only to Cole Creek). Conditions hot again, 89° at 2:25 pm, with a warm breeze.

Despite the heat, I met six groups of people hiking the SRP today, including two groups who had hiked in the noontime heat and were finishing their hike as I was beginning.

The last major plant species, Palmer goldenbush, has now come into bloom, and thus the bloom will soon hit its minimum value. The showiness is now down to a value of only 8, compared to its peak value of 87.

At least ten oaks (scrub, Engelmann and coast live oaks) along the trail have either dropped a large number of their leaves, or have had all their leaves turn brown while staying tightly attached to the stems, not a good sign. The south end of the Vernal Pool Trail is covered with leaves underneath an Engelmann and a coast live oak that are side by side.

I remember this happening last fall to some Coast Live Oaks in Fallbrook and in the San Gabriel Mountains, some of which recovered after the rains came, and some of which did not. Since this behavior is not shown by the vast majority of oaks, these must be the ones that are most stressed.

I was surprised at three things today:

2001 October 20 (Day 245): Vernal Pool, Vista Grande, S. Los Santos and Trans Preserve (only a small section of the south end for the latter two) Trails; Tenaja Truck Trail and Waterline Road. Pleasant conditions with temperatures in the mid-70s at 1:30 pm, with a nice breeze.

A week ago on the Trans Preserve Trail, I had seen what at first looked like a coyote bush that I hadn't noticed before, mostly in seed, which is much more advanced than two coyote bushes elsewhere at the SRP. Today I tried to key it out to one of the varieties known to be at the SRP, and it didn't key out. It looks like this might be a ninth new species I've found this year, broom baccharis, but I need to verify it against that id.

Tarantulas were still out today, with one on the Vernal Pool Trail and another on Monument Hill Road.

I was quite surprised to come across a short little flower near the crest of the Vista Grande Trail. I was even more surprised to id it later as Jepsonia, which I never expected in this grassland location.

A long string of deflated balloons was draped across an oak, with a water bottle with a bit of sand in the bottom at its base. It looks like one of the string of balloons seen at car dealers, but I always thought they tied them to a car and not to a water bottle filled with sand!

2001 October 27 (Day 252): N. Granite Loop, Vernal Pool, Adobe Loop, S. Los Santos (only a small section of the south end) and Trans Preserve Trails; Ranch Road. Pleasant conditions with temperatures in the low 70s at 2:00 pm, with a nice breeze.

Christmas must be near, since the berries on toyon, sometimes called Christmas berry, have just started to turn red. There are bits of red and brown from willows in the drainages, and the leaves on the western sycamores are turning yellow and falling.

As I was hiking today, it struck me again how beautiful this time of year is. As I did on October 8, I stopped several times just to soak in the special characteristics of the SRP now. It's hard to say exactly what makes this season so delightful, but cool temperatures, a cool breeze, the beautiful light-brown color of the grasslands, and the solitude all contribute. Within ten minutes of noting this in my log, I met a woman who mentioned the very same feeling to me as we exchanged greetings!

Although I saw no tarantulas today, another group told me they had seen two on the Vernal Pool Trail.

Much to my surprise, on the Adobe Loop Trail in an area with more water, a group of California sagebrush plants were in full bloom. Every other California sagebrush on the SRP looks like they have aborted their buds, deciding that it was better to conserve their resources this year so that they can bloom and set seed in future years. The bit of additional moisture in this location allowed this group of plants to flower normally.

The broom baccharis indeed unquestionably keyed out distinctly from the other coyote bushes at the SRP. This plant is still a bit puzzling to me, since its habit is very different from the broom baccharis at Lake Hodges, but this may simply be due to the much different environment at the SRP.

2001 November 3 (Day 259): Granite Loop, S. Los Santos (only a small section of the south end) and Vernal Pool Trails. Pleasant conditions with temperatures in the low 70s at 3:00 pm at the Visitor Center, becoming cool at the Vernal Pool Trail with a cool breeze at 4:00 pm.

I had the sharp eyes of Nathan Lopshire with me to search for Jepsonia on the Granite Loop Trail. Here's how hard it is to see. With both of us looking intently for it, beginning at the north entrance to the trail, we found none until we had nearly completed the Loop. Then, all of a sudden, we saw over 30 plants in full bloom in at least three sections of the trail. Suspicious that we might have missed it earlier, we repeated the beginning of the Loop again, and found ~10 plants we had missed earlier.

Two possible reasons for our difficulty are that the flowers are a bit smaller for the plants here than the one we saw on the Vista Grande Trail two weeks earlier, and the flowers are frequently hidden in the small dead plants along the edge of the trail.

Amazingly, for a plant that is supposed to finish its bloom in July, the flax-flowered linanthus keeps on blooming on the S. Los Santos Trail.

2001 November 10 (Day 266): Granite Loop (north section) and Vernal Pool Trails; Waterline Road to Cole Creek. Cool conditions with temperatures in the low 60s at 2:00 pm at the Vernal Pool Trail, with a cold breeze.

Winter is in the air. Clouds from a low-pressure system are moving in, with a prediction of possible rain. The breeze is now a winter wind, no longer the cool and refreshing breeze of summer and fall, but the cold button-up-your-coat kind of breeze.

Winter is in the animals. The side-blotched lizards, so much in evidence on trails for the last few months, were absent today, perhaps hunkering down in the ground for warmth. Tarantulas are absent now, the males having completed their mating duty and died.

Winter is in the plants. The Engelmann and scrub oak acorns are turning brown and dropping. Many species that have been blooming for the last month are down to their last few flowers. The flax-flowered linanthus has no blooms open for the first time since August. Toyon berries are halfway to their Christmas red color. And the first leaf has unwrapped from the buds on the white-flowering currant, which is usually the first bloom of January.

The calendar doesn't confirm it yet, but today's walk says that Winter is here.

2001 November 17 (Day 273): Granite Loop (short section near south trailhead), Trans Preserve, Vernal Pool and Adobe Loop Trails. Pleasant conditions with temperatures in the mid 70s at 1 pm with clouds.

The Jepsonia is still in full bloom along the Granite Loop Trail. It is much easier to spot today than the last several days, probably due to better lighting conditions at 1 pm and the presence of clouds diffusing the light.

Amazingly, there were two blooms from the flax-flowered linanthus open today, despite no blooms being open last week.

The Engelmann acorns are now about half on the ground, and the scrub oak acorns have mostly turned brown. The toyon berries are now mostly full red.

But winter is not fully here yet. A few gnats were still troublesome on the Vernal Pool Trail, and one side-blotched lizard scurried into a hole on the trail as I approached.

The Vernal Pool Trail had some interesting deposits on it. The 0.34" of rain on 11/12 was enough to start water coursing down the bottom part of the trail, toward Ranch Road, but not enough to carry its load of silt and plant parts very far. As a result, roughly every 100' or so there was a deposit of silt and plant parts along the trail.

The Adobe Loop Trail had more plant surprises. I was stunned to see a few bull thistle plants blooming merrily away, and even more stunned to see a few California everlasting plants almost in full bloom. This is near the same portion of the trail where the California sagebrush bloomed this year. Something is very different about that area from the rest of the preserve.

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Copyright © 2000-2001 by Tom Chester.
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Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 30 November 2001.